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Eastern Saung Meets Western Harp

Part of a series of posts on musical instruments in our upcoming June auctions

“Glorious is the Voice of Man, and sweet is the music of the harp” - so writes Richard Llewellyn in his 1939 novel How Green Was My Valley. While Llewellyn was referring back to the tribulations of the coal miners of 20th century Wales, his words capture the poignancy and empathy of the harp’s music and its central place within the human psyche and human culture.

As a cultural artifact, the harp also exemplifies the theme of our June East Meets West Auction at Oakridge Auction Gallery, charting the progression of design and musical tradition from Eastern influenced precedents to the present day - a progression aptly illustrated by the Burmese Saunggauk and this 1926 Lyon and Healy gilt pedal harp in our upcoming June East Meets West auctions.

harp blog.jpg

The saunggauk - or simply saung - is a relatively small harp with a ship-shaped body and a long, arching neck, around which are strung cords of silk thread, held in place by cotton tuning rings that can be tightened or loosened to adjust the tone of the instrument. A saung musician holds the instrument in his or her lap with the neck arching away from the musician, so that the right hand, resting on the outer portion of the harp’s body, and the left hand are both free to pluck the strings, from opposite sides. Although not typically part of the traditional Hsaing ensembles in which other ancient Burmese instruments give voice to the lyric poetry of the Mahagita, the songs of the old Burmese royal court,1 the saung is often played in tandem with the bell and clapper, as well as vocal melodies, each instrument acting as both soloist and partner to the musical group.2

Googlhupf. “Two women harpists playing the Saung, a bow harp from Myanmar also called Burmese or Myanmar harp, in the evening performance of the "Manalay Marionettes Co., Ltd.", 66th street, betw. 26th + 27th street, next to the Sedona-Hotel, Mandalay, Myanmar.” Photographed with permission by verbal consent. September 29, 2011. Wikimedia Commons. Accessed May 7, 2019.

While the saung remains relatively unchanged from the predecessor remarked upon in Chinese chronicles as long ago as the 9th century CE (and likely even before), the pedal harp with double-action mechanism was first patented in 1810, by the Frenchman Sebastian Erard.3  In form, it followed the harps of medieval Europe, with an upright body that acted as a hollow resonator, an inclined soundboard, and upper arch. The front bow straightened into a proper column, but the greatest change lay in the use of pedals to give each string both a flat and a sharp variation on the eight-tone scale; early harps like the archetypical Brian Boru harp could produce a sharp using a lever or pin to compress the string end, but could not rival the ability of the double-action pedal harp to provide the harpist with the entire Western scale, much like the equally revolutionary clavier and piano.

In point of fact, however, the Western harp descended from a much older tradition of chordophones; the Egyptian precedent greatly resembled the Burmese saung gauk, with arching neck, a body held in the player’s lap, and cords for the tuning rings to tighten strings. The Egyptians themselves borrowed the form of their harp from further east in Asia, albeit in around 1500 BCE.4

The somewhat ironic take-away is that the saung gauk, representative of an ancient and relatively intact folk tradition with an emphasis on improvisation within a standard repertoire, and the “skill with which [musicians] execute[...] dramatic changes of tonality and tempo,”5 has in recent years faced considerable pressure from the burgeoning popularity of not only American and European but particularly Korean popular music. A 2010 Los Angeles Times article observed how traditional and folk music in present-day Myanmar (the modern name for the former kingdom and then colony of Burma) are often associated with the military regime and thus eschewed by younger Burmese.6 Some forms of folk music continue to be practiced, particularly in adaptations as protest songs;7 however, the greatest threat to the tradition of Burmese classical music is in the decline of the instrument maker’s art.

Where pedal harps like our 1926 Lyon and Healy model are still regularly produced each year in large numbers, the workshops and artisans capable of handcrafting the Burmese saung are dwindling. According to an article in the online newspaper Frontier Myanmar from 2017, there are only three remaining traditional harp-makers on record in Myanmar, whose workshops each produce only about 15 of these painstakingly made instruments each year.8 Seeing these two harps side by side thus offers a poignant glimpse into the musical past, and into the history of Eastern-Western cultural exchange.


1) Robert Garfias, “Review of Mahagitá: Harp and Vocal Music of Burma by Ink Myint Maung, Yi Yi

Thant, Rick Heizman and  Ward Keeler,” in Ethnomusicology 48, No. 1 (Winter, 2004): pp. 151-152, JSTOR, accessed via University of California Irvine website, accessed April 15, 2019.

2) U Khin Zaw, "Burmese Music: A partnership in melodic sounds," The Atlantic (February 1958), The Atlantic.com, accessed April 10, 2019.

3) “History of the Harp,” International Harp Museum, accessed April 16, 2019. http://www.internationalharpmuseum.org/visit/history.html

4) Ibid.

5) Robert Garfias, "Burmese Hsaing and Anyein," Asia Society, 2019, accessed April 10, 2019.


6) A Times Staff Writer, “Burmese Music Is Fading Out,” Los Angeles Times, December 6, 2010, under U.S. & World, accessed April 15, 2019.

7) “Burmese Music: Sound of the Underground,” Independent, April 14, 2010, under News-World-Asia, accessed April 15, 2019.

8) Su Myat Mon, “The Master Harp-Maker and an Imperilled Craft,” Frontier Myanmar, August 9, 2017, accessed April 15, 2019.

Literature Consulted

“Burmese Music: Sound of the Underground.” Independent, April 14, 2010, under News-World-Asia. Accessed April 15, 2019.


Garfias, Robert. “Review of Mahagitá: Harp and Vocal Music of Burma by Ink Myint Maung, Yi Yi

Thant, Rick Heizman and  Ward Keeler.” In Ethnomusicology 48, No. 1 (Winter, 2004): pp. 151-152. JSTOR, accessed via University of California Irvine website. Accessed April 15, 2019. https://escholarship.org/uc/item/118637nq

Garfias, Robert. "Burmese Hsaing and Anyein." Asia Society, 2019. Accessed April 10, 2019.


Garfias, R. “The Maha Gita.” October 30, 1995. Accessed April 15, 2019. https://www.umbc.edu/eol/garfias/mahagita.html

“History of the Harp.” International Harp Museum. Accessed April 16, 2019. http://www.internationalharpmuseum.org/visit/history.html

Mon, Su Myat. “The Master Harp-Maker and an Imperilled Craft.” Frontier Myanmar. August 9, 2017. Accessed April 15, 2019. https://frontiermyanmar.net/en/the-master-harp-maker-and-an-imperilled-craft

“Myanmar profile - Timeline.” BBC News: Asia. September 3, 2018. Accessed April 12, 2019. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-pacific-12992883

Powell, John. “Buddhist Music of Myanmar (Burma).” Blog sponsored by University of Tulsa. Accessed April 14, 2019. http://www.personal.utulsa.edu/~john-powell/Buddhist_Music/index.html

“Saung-Gauk.” Horniman Museum and Gardens. Accessed April 3, 2019. https://www.horniman.ac.uk/index.php/collections/browse-our-collections/object/17039

A Times Staff Writer. “Burmese Music Is Fading Out.” Los Angeles Times, December 6, 2010, under U.S. & World. Accessed April 15, 2019. ”https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2010-dec-26-la-fg-myanmar-music-20101226-story.html

Xu, Beina and Eleanor Albert. “Understanding Myanmar.” Updated March 25, 2016. Council on Foreign Relations. Accessed April 12, 2019. https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/understanding-myanmar

Zaw, U Khin. "Burmese Music: A partnership in melodic sounds." The Atlantic (February 1958), The Atlantic.com. Accessed April 10, 2019. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1958/02/burmese-music/306823/


About the Author

Katharina Biermann joined Oakridge Auction Gallery in the beginning of 2019, having completed her Master of Letters at the University of Glasgow in the History of Art with a specialization in Dress and Textile Histories. Ms. Biermann developed hands-on expertise of European arts and culture while interning in internationally renowned institutions including the National Museums Scotland in Edinburgh, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, NY. She remains particularly interested in medieval and 19th-20th century visual and material culture.

Katharina Biermann

Tue, May 7, 2019 3:10 PM

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